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The Many Wizard of Oz Adaptations, and Their Troubled History

TCM’s Silent Sunday feature tonight is the 1925 adaptation of The Wizard of Oz. As mentioned in the previous post, there are actually tons and tons of adaptations of L. Frank Baum’s book, including many before the legendary 1939 version. In total there have been 23 film adaptations (some of them sequels), one of which was never finished. Of those 23, nine came out prior to the Judy Garland version. Each of these takes it’s own unique look on the story, creating a very complex history of adaptations. Interestingly enough, nearly all of them faced production obstacles:

The first adaptation was helmed by Baum himself in 1908, a unique multimedia experience called The Fairylogue and Radio Plays. Presented as a stage show, Baum himself introduced scenes played by live actors as well as film clips of the Oz story. The film clips were colored through a tinting process, by means of which we’re not exactly aware. Baum appears to have credited the process to a person that did not exist, and referred to their method as “radio-play,” which also appears to be something that was simply made up. A musical score with distinct cues was also created for the production. The show only lasted for a couple months before shutting down.

The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, a short, followed two years later in 1910. Based more around a 1902 musical adaptation, this version came about purely due the bankruptcy Baum accrued as a result of the Fairylogue and Radio Plays failure. Baum gave up the rights to his work, leading to the film being produced. It wasn’t until 1932, long after his death, that his wife obtained the rights again.

Despite that, Baum continued to make loose adaptations of his work, or works that took place in the land of Oz. All three he made were released in 1914. Two of them, The Patchwork Girl of Oz and The Magic Cloak of Oz were based off different books, but used Oz as their setting. The third, His Majesty, the Scarecrow of Oz falls more in line with the original book, although it is still a loose adaptation. After Patchwork flopped, the following two films hit distribution problems, leading to their failure as well. Following that, a 1921 production directed by Ray C. Smallwood began production, but was never completed.

The next completed adaption was the 1925 Wizard of Oz, which TCM is showing. Although each adaptation differs from the book in some ways, this one is the most extreme. The main key is that all of the farmhands are disguised as the Tin Man, Scarecrow and Cowardly Lion when she encounters them in that form. In addition, Dorothy is explicitly romantically interested in them. There is at least one other major difference, but that includes spoilers and won’t be included here. The film was also plagued by distribution problems, due to the production company’s bankruptcy.

The Land of Oz was a sequel released in 1932. There is little known about the film, largely due to it being lost for a great period of time. Although now recovered, it is missing the soundtrack on one of the reels. It is known that it was made by the Meglin Kiddies production company.

An animated short released the following year wasn’t without it’s own problems. Although created using Technicolor, it had to be released in black and white through a lawsuit, due to licensing problems.

The next adaptation was the famed 1939 version, which had plenty of it’s own production problems. Many of these oft repeated, such as Buddy Ebsen’s bad reaction to the Tin Man paint, and Margaret Hamilton’s injuries. Beyond that, though, are several more problems that cropped up throughout the process. Nailing down a writer or director to complete the film proved to be quite difficult. Herman Mankiewicz, Noel Langley and Ogden Nash all simultaneously worked on scripts, unbeknownst that the others were working on it. None of those scripts were used, as a version by Florence Ryerson and Edgar Allan Woolf appeared to be the one that made the cut. Not too long after, however, Langley was out back on the job. Additional dialogue was changed afterwards, although only Ryerson, Woolf and Langley received screen credit. It has been estimated that as many as 16 people made uncredited contributions to the script.

The director’s chair was frequently changing as well. Norman Taurog, the original director, never made it past the screen test phase. Richard Thorpe took over for a brief period when Ebsen was still in the role of the Tin Man. During the layoff following his departure, Thorpe was dropped from the position. George Cukor was then brought on to helm the project. Although he never shot any footage, he made two big decisions to change the look of Dorothy and the Witch. The Witch’s makeup was changed, and Dorothy lost the blonde wig and makeup she wore in the footage shot. Due to these changes, all the previous material shot could no longer be used. This left new director Victor Fleming to start completely fresh.

Although Fleming would go on to shoot most of the film, he left late in the process to replace Cukor in Gone with the Wind. King Vidor, uncredited, filmed what was left, most of which was the Kansas sequences. As the technicolor portion of the film was a much more arduous task to complete, that was handled first and was completed by the time Fleming departed. Producer Mervyn LeRoy later went on to direct re-shoots that popped up for three months after filming ended. Ultimately, only Fleming received screen credit.

Overall, the production and distribution problems of these Oz adaptations were numerous, and ran the gamut from financial issues, to creative differences. One of the most beloved stories of our time has a very volatile history.


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